#6Degrees June 2022

Always happy to add in an extra blog post for this fun monthly meme: you start with the same book as all the other readers and then let your imagination run wild over the course of six links. For more explanations and an example of how it’s done, see the host of this meme, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

The starting point this month is a book that has had quite a bit of a buzz, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. It’s the story of a woman who thinks there might be something wrong with her, but her husband keeps telling her everything’s fine, until the moment when he leaves her. I haven’t read it yet, but (for obvious reasons) it resonates with me and I intend to read it… after the buzz has quietened down.

I will start with another book about women’s mental health and husbands who fail to understand or sympathise (to put it mildly) – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s creepy and terrifying, with no humour or happy ending (which I gather Sorrow and Bliss does have), which makes it all the more unsuitable for the marketing treatment below.

who’s gonna tell them pic.twitter.com/zrCJ7cdLYT‚ÄĒ Meaghan O’Connell (@meaghano) June 1, 2022

 

This (and the responses in the thread) made me laugh nearly all of Thursday, and the next link is to another misinterpreted book, namely The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. We recently rewatched the Disney adaptation and I was struck once more by how much it simplifies and whitewashes characters, while Hugo intended it to be more of a social and cultural critique. Quasimodo is a complex character (who wouldn’t be, given the circumstances of his birth, physical body and upbringing?), certainly not as innocent and childish as in the cartoon, but at least Hugo shows that people with disabilities can be more loving and noble than attractive people like Phoebus.

The book Wonder by R.J. Palacio was ubiquitous when my children were in primary school, as an example of a book designed to reassure children that facial disfigurement does not a lesser person make. My sons were somewhat bemused by the simplistic message, since they had already encountered plenty of classmates who did not ‘fit the norm’ already, but not everyone has those experiences, and I always appreciate books which broaden our horizons.

Very simple link comes next: the word ‘wonder’ in the title. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages, hopefully I will be able to find it at the university library: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, and the subtitle says it all, really:¬† The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science.

The next choice is a play about the beauty and terror of science, more specifically physics. Friedrich D√ľrrenmatt’s The Physicists is a classic written at the height of the Cold War in 1962, after the Second World War had shown the incredible and destructive power of the atom, and how politicians are unlikely to use such power for good purposes.

In addition to being a playwright, D√ľrrenmatt also wrote crime fiction, first as potboilers, but then increasingly subverting the genre and introducing his own brand of philosophy about guilt and punishment and social responsibility. Another writer who is better known for his literary works, but also wrote crime novels (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake), is Cecil Day-Lewis and I will pick his most famous novel The Beast Must Die, which has been adapted at least twice for cinema, including by Claude Chabrol (see the film poster).

A thread heavy on men and/or English language this month, I notice, but that’s where my subconscious took me. I don’t overthink these things, let whim guide me. Where will your whim take you?

Friedrich D√ľrrenmatt: Der Verdacht (Suspicion)

german-2015

My first review this year for the always inspiring German Literature Month – see more reviews and recommendations here, including another review of D√ľrrenmatt by Jacqui.

The playwright at the age of two, from duerrenmatt.net
The playwright at the age of two, from duerrenmatt.net

I still find it hard to believe that D√ľrrenmatt was writing both this novel and its predecessor as a way of paying bills (for his wife’s hospitalisation, amongst other things). In fact, this one was written and published at a rapid pace, almost concurrently, in weekly installments in the populist newspaper Schweizer Beobachter. At the time he was also working on a play and living in rather cramped conditions with his small family in the house of his mother-in-law on the lake in Biel. Some of it was written in the hospital in Berne, where half of the action takes place.

D√ľrrenmatt was well-known for his anti-Nazi stance and for poking fun at his fellow countrymen’s supposed neutrality during the Second World War.¬†Suspicion¬†takes up where¬†The Judge and His Hangman left off. Inspector B√§rlach¬†is in hospital recovering from an operation which has only managed to prolong his life by a year. His surgeon, Dr. Hungertobel, is also a friend and as they sit together chatting one day, the doctor thinks that he recognises an old classmate of his in a picture of a Nazi camp doctor known for his terrible atrocities. He quickly repudiates that idea, however, as his classmate spent the war years in Chile and even published articles in medical journals during that time. But the seeds of suspicion have been planted in¬†B√§rlach’s mind and this most intuitive and internalised of detectives embarks upon a personal investigation from his hospital bed.

There are similarities with Josephine Tey’s ‘The Daughter of Time’ in this set-up, but the stubborn Swiss inspector goes one step further. He persuades the reluctant Hungertobel to move him to convalesce in the sanatorium for wealthy people opened by the doctor he suspects of Nazi war crimes. This is when the story becomes much less of a straightforward investigation and takes on certain nightmarish, almost surreal qualities.

verdachtD√ľrrenmatt’s playwriting skills come to the fore in this book. We have far fewer descriptions of landscapes and houses: nearly every scene takes place in an enclosed, indoor space, quite claustrophobic. Dialogues drive the plot and some of them even turn into serial monologues as first one character and then another spells out their view of the world, their beliefs and values (or lack thereof). As one of the protagonists says:

You’re silent. People nowadays don’t like answering the question: ‘What do you believe in?’ It’s become indecent to ask such a question. ‘We don’t like using big words’ is what we modestly tell ourselves, but most of all we don’t like giving an exact answer… (own translation)

With just a few deft strokes and excellent use of dialogue and humour, the author sketches some unforgettable character portraits: the stubborn and profoundly religious nurse from the Emmental (interesting aside: D√ľrrenmatt himself was born there as the son of a Protestant pastor); the assistant doctor Marlok, a former Communist who has lost all her ideals and needs daily doses of morphine to maintain her beauty and perhaps her conscience; the increasingly uneasy Dr. Hungertobel, who wants to believe the best of every one he encounters.

Above all, it is not just¬†B√§rlach’s life which is in danger, but also his soul, for the nihilistic voices taunt him and his belief in justice:

You’re the kind of fool who swears by mathematical truths. The law is the law. X = X … But the law isn’t the law: power is… Nothing is what it seems in this world, everything is a lie. When we say law, we mean power; and when we say power, we think of riches…

D√ľrrenmatt captures perfectly the spirit of his age, the immediate post-war years, with all the doubts, anxieties and dislike of any kind of ideology. As the world descended into the newly rigid battle trenches of the Cold War chaos, suspicion becomes a way of life. But how can humanity survive on nihilism alone?

So, not a conventional crime novel as such, but posing many moral dilemmas instead. Yet it still has puzzle-solving and tension (including a ‘race against the clock’) to please crime readers. The author takes up the theme of guilt and responsibility, revenge and justice again and again, including in his best-known plays¬†Romulus the Great, The Visit¬†and¬†The Physicists.

 

 

 

Reading Plans for the Rest of 2015

2015 is not over yet, so there’s still time to take a little control of my reading. It’s been a reasonably good year, and I’ve felt far less of a pressure to be ‘up-to-date’ with my reading and reviewing than in previous years. [Where did that come from? I think social media may have played a part, as I never used to care about the latest launches before.]

Anyway, I have managed to stick by and large to my resolution to be less ‘greedy’ and to allow myself to be guided by my own tastes and nothing else. I’ve surpassed my target of 120 books on Goodreads (136 and counting, so likely to hit 150 by the end of the year) and only a small number of those have been ‘unsolicited’ books for reviewing purposes. [Fortunately, I’ve learnt to turn down books I don’t fancy, so I seldom feel horribly frustrated at having to come up with something about a book I was indifferent about.]

So I’ve had fun and broadened my horizons. But… you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?… I still struggle with a toppling TBR pile (both physical and electronic). Something needs to be done about it.

Fortunately, there are a couple of months left to make a small dent in my TBR skyscraper.

GermanLitNovember will be German Lit Month, an initiative hosted by Caroline and Lizzy¬†(now in its 5th year, if I’m not mistaken). I plan to read 1 Swiss, 2 Austrian and 3 German books, all with a noirish feel.

  1. First up, Friedrich D√ľrrenmatt’s follow-up B√§rlach novel¬†Der Verdacht¬†(Suspicion but a.k.a. The Quarry in English). I loved¬†The Judge and His Hangman:¬†these are philosophical crime novels, although D√ľrrenmatt himself thought of them as potboilers.
  2. A new name to me from Pushkin Vertigo. Alexander Lernet-Holenia: I Was Jack Mortimer (transl.  Ignat Avsey), first published in 1933.
  3. Stefan Zweig. I have a copy of¬†Meisternovellen (collected novellas), but I haven’t quite decided which ones I will read – or if I can read all of them. This volume includes the Chess novella, 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Burning Secret, Confusion of Feelings, so pretty much all of the shorter pieces for which he is famous.
  4. The final three are all crime fiction: Jakob Arjouni’s 3rd Kayankaya novel¬†Ein Mann, ein Mord¬†(One Man, One Murder) and 2 volumes of the¬†Es geschah in Berlin¬†(It happened in Berlin) series 1934 and 1938. No thanks to Mrs. Peabody for making me buy the last two!

December will be my Netgalley catch-up month, as I now have 35 titles on my bookshelf. I do want to read them all, so it’s not like my eyes were larger than my tummy. Here are the ones that attract me at the moment (although this may change by December): Yasmina Khadra’s The Dictator’s Last Night;¬†Lauren Groff:¬†Fates and Furies; Saul Black:¬†The Killing Lessons; S.K. Tremayne:¬†The Ice Twins;¬†Sarah Jasmon:¬†The Summer of Secrets¬†and something completely out of my comfort zone, Massimo Marino’s Daimones Trilogy (Book 1). I know Massimo as a fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group – he is a former high energy physicist who has turned to writing ‘science fiction with heart and soul’.

 

 

Reading Bingo for 2014 (Mostly)

Thank you to the wonderful Cleo for making me aware of the reading bingo meme below. She has some wonderful selections on her own blog, do go and check them out, and I doubt I’ll be able to do quite as well, but here goes. I’ve stuck mainly to books read in 2014 and linked to my reviews of them (where available).

reading-bingo-small1) 500+ pages:¬†Pierre Lemaitre’s wonderful recount of the end of the First World War: Au-revoir la-haut

2) Forgotten Classic:¬†Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – I hadn’t read it since my schooldays and it was much better this time round

3) Book that became a movie: ¬†Friedrich D√ľrrenmatt: The Judge and His Hangman – adapted several times for TV and cinema, but its most famous and stylish adaptation is directed by Maximilian Schell

4) Book Published This Year: probably far too many, but one that comes to mind instantly is ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur‘ by Gregoire Delacourt

5) Book with a number in the title: 220 Volts by Joseph Incardona (review still to come) – an ‘electrifying’ account of a marriage in its death throes and a writer searching for inspiration

6) Book written by someone under 30: No idea, as the younger authors don’t usually have a Wikipedia entry with their date of birth, but I suspect that Kerry Hudson might fit into this category. I really enjoyed her novel ‘Thirst’.

7) A book with non-human characters: not really my type of reading, but Lauren Owen’s ‘The Quick’ featured vampires. Does that count? They are humanoid…

8) Funny: Light, witty and making me love my cat even more: Lena Divani’s ‘Seven Lives and One Great Love

9) Book by a female author: LOTS of them, hopefully, but a special shout-out for the delightful Wuthering Heights-like epic by Minae Mizumura ‘A True Novel’

10) Mystery: Well, most of my reading revolves around crime fiction, but I will mention David Jackson’s thrilling, heartbreaking read ‘Cry Baby

11) Novel with a one-word title: Surprisingly, there were a number of contenders for this, but I chose Shuichi Yoshida’s ‘Villain‘ – which is also a single word in Japanese ‘Akunin’.

12) Short stories: I realised this year that I haven’t read many short story collections recently, so I tried to make up for this and read about 4-5. My favourite was Alma Lazarevska’s ¬†‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘, stories set during the siege of Sarajevo.

13) A book set on a different continent: You know how I like to travel, so I have quite a choice here and went for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, as portrayed in ‘Devil-Devil’¬†by Graeme Kent.

14) Non-fiction: Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘ – the most honest and poignant depiction of grief I’ve come across in a long, long time

15) First Book by a favourite author: I’m cheating a little bit here, as I did not read it this year, but ‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf surely counts? A much more conventional novel than her later work, it nevertheless contains many of her perennial themes (of trying to fit in, of the difficulties of communication, of allowing your emotions to be your guide and, finally, of becoming your own person with your own thoughts and stimulating intellect).

16) A book I heard about online: I discover many, far too many books and add them to my TBR list as a result of reading so many good blogs. Tony Malone has been the one to blame for many an impulsive purchase (usually well worth the effort!), and now he is also responsible for my obsession with¬†Karl Ove Knausg√•rd and his ‘A Man in Love‘.

17) Bestseller: I’m never quite sure if what I’m reading is a bestseller or not, as this is not one of the criteria I bear in mind when selecting a book. However, I’m pretty sure that ‘Norwegian by Night‘ by Derek B. Miller qualifies for that title – and it won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.

18) Book based on a true story: The partly autobiographical account (supplemented by a lot of imagination and memories from other participants) of the life of her mother by Delphine de Vigan 

19) Book at the bottom of the TBR pile: Well, it depends if it’s electronic book or physical book. I have a massive chunk of double-shelving to get through and the one that happened to be behind all the others was a book I picked up at a library sale ‘Un sentiment plus fort que la peur’ by Marc Levy. Levy is the most-read French author, has been translated into 49 languages and currently lives in the US. I suspect his thrillerish bestsellers might not quite be my style, but at 50 centimes for 400+ pages, I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

20) A book that a friend loves: Several friends (both online and real-life) have recommended Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs‘. I can completely understand their passion for it.

21) A book that scares me: I don’t read horror fiction very much and am not easily scared. However, horrible situations or characters, such as the mother in Koren Zailckas’ ‘Mother, Mother‘, do give me the creeps.

22) A book that is more than 10 years old: So many of my favourite books are… However, one I recently (re)read was Fumiko Enchi’s ‘The Waiting Years‘, written in 1957, and depicting an even older Japan.

23) The second book in a series: Fr√©d√©rique Molay’s Paris-based detective Nico Sirsky reappears in the intriguing investigation concerning a dead man’s hidden message in ‘Crossing the Line

LongWayHome24) A book with a blue cover: I am susceptible both to blue covers and to this Canadian writer’s series about Armand Gamache: Louise Penny’s latest novel ‘The Long Way Home